- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The present is grim for the Washington Redskins, and the future doesn't look any better.

"It's very depressing," two-time NFC rushing champion Stephen Davis said yesterday. "You'd like to get better, but we keep getting worse."

Indeed, the last-place Redskins (5-9) have lost five of their past six games and rank among the NFL's worst teams. The question now is whether they will be able to improve during a crucial offseason.

Following a season of turmoil, the Redskins face an offseason of even more. The club likely will lose several key players to free agency and because of a tight salary cap. Those cap problems will inhibit the team's ability to replace the departed players and to shore up weaknesses that already exist.

Cornerback Darrell Green is retiring after this season. Davis, the team's leading rusher the past three seasons, and defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, a starter the past five seasons, are almost certain to be cut for salary cap reasons. Offensive tackle Jon Jansen, a 1999 draft choice who has been one of the Redskins' best players, becomes a free agent after this season.

The Redskins could bid to keep Jansen by designating him the club's transition player. That would require the Redskins to offer Jansen a contract worth at least the average of the 10 highest-paid offensive tackles in the league. Other clubs then could make Jansen an offer, but the Redskins would have the right to match. The question for the Redskins is whether they would match or, because of the salary cap, could afford to match.

However, take away Davis and Jansen, and the Redskins' ineffective rushing attack faces more trouble.

Davis' likely replacement, second-round draft pick Ladell Betts, hasn't shown he can perform well enough to start. The same is true of backup offensive tackle Alex Sulfsted, who would replace Jansen on an already shaky line. That would only put more pressure on rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who'll head into next year having started just five games. And Rod Gardner is the club's only proven receiver.

"We need to jell," veteran guard Tre Johnson said. "Everybody's running around like 53 guys. There's not a lot of cohesiveness. Man for man, I'm not overly impressed with the Eagles, but they play very well together. That says a lot more than getting 30 all-stars."

Despite all of the Redskins' talent especially on defense the only other teams that rank 25th or below in both scoring and scoring defense are ne'er do-wells: the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals. The Redskins under coach Steve Spurrier do not rank in the top half of the league in any offensive category. The special teams, which have gone through three kickers and two punters, are dreadful.

The 10th-ranked defense is better, but it also ranked 10th last year and fourth the year before. Coordinator Marvin Lewis plans to pursue a job as a head coach for another NFL team. And until Wilkinson and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter went down in Week 13, the unit had been remarkably injury-free this season, good fortune that might not be repeated in 2003.

It will be difficult for the Redskins to spend their way out of trouble. They likely will cut Davis, but that would only free up enough salary cap space to allow them to re-sign Jansen. Wilkinson likely will be cut as well, which would allow the Redskins to re-sign defensive tackle Daryl Gardener. That leaves the undistinguished Carl Powell or Del Cowsette to replace Wilkinson.

The club figures to be about $4million under the projected salary cap of $74million, which won't go a long way to solving its problems.

If Spurrier wants to give Ramsey competition other than holdover Danny Wuerffel, Arizona's Jake Plummer will be on the market and Florida Gators star Rex Grossman will be available in April's draft.

Whoever the quarterback is, the Redskins have serious problems to solve on the offensive line particularly at guard. Young players David Loverne and Wilbert Brown produced mediocre seasons, veterans Brenden Stai and Rod Jones often were hurt and Johnson didn't add that much after being re-signed in October. Veteran tight end Walter Rasby might be replaced by Robert Royal, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve.

Physical Cardinals wideout David Boston and Buffalo's speedy Peerless Price would be intriguing replacements for receiver Derrius Thompson, who's not a legitimate NFL starter. Spurrier also could opt to use his first-rounder on that position, especially since he often uses formations with three or four receivers.

Free safety David Terrell a restricted free agent seems likely to lose his job. It also isn't clear whether defensive end Bruce Smith will be back next season at age 39, no matter how close he is (six) to Reggie White's all-time record of 198 sacks.

Trotter and defensive end Renaldo Wynn, last offseason's major additions, have been disappointments but should be back. Trotter, however, won't recover from knee surgery until training camp. Ifeanyi Ohalete, who took over for Sam Shade at strong safety at midseason, should be back.

"It's going to be an interesting offseason," said Johnson, a Redskin for all but one of the last nine years. "There's always housecleaning to be done."

And there's still more bad news: The Redskins' schedule next season appears to be more difficult than it was this year.

NFC East teams next season will face clubs from the AFC East, all of which now are at .500 or better a tougher challenge than the mediocre AFC South was on this year's schedule. The Redskins also will face all three teams from the NFC South that are likely to make the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

In addition, they will have their usual two meetings with division rivals Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants against whom they're 0-5 this season.

For the players, the lack of progress this season has been frustrating.

"We're regressing," Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington said after Sunday's 34-21 loss to the NFC East champion Eagles.

The prospect of more upheaval in the offseason isn't easy to take, either.

"Things haven't been the same since my rookie year," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Coaches come and go, players come and go. I'm only going to be in my fifth year. I shouldn't be here the longest."

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